John James Audubon
Swallow Tailed Hawk
One of the plates created by John James Audubon during his time in Louisiana.
“A true Conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father but borrowed from his children.”
— John James Audubon
When John James Audubon stepped off the boat onto the riverbank at Bayou Sara in June of 1821, he knew instinctively he had stumbled upon a unique environment. As he trudged up the steep embankment toward St. Francisville, he proclaimed the area to be his “Happyland,” teeming with flora and fauna that were, in his estimation, “supernatural.” He was on his way to Oakley Plantation, where he had been hired to tutor Eliza Pirrie, the daughter of its wealthy owner.
Prior to his arrival in Louisiana, Audubon had been working toward his goal of painting every native bird in North America. The woods and waterways around Oakley and throughout the Felicianas proved fertile hunting ground for his subjects. The now-famous artist and conservationist would complete a total of seventy-three life-sized bird drawings in the St. Francisville area and well over one hundred in Louisiana, more than in any other part of the United States. These mixed media watercolor paintings would become a large part of his Birds of America folio, the preeminent collection of wildlife illustrations that, many would later argue, launched the American conservation movement.
Honoring the “Bird King”
In 1971, a group of St. Francisville-area women, recognizing the area’s particular combination of beauty and history created their own homage to the man who put their region on the map. The Audubon Pilgrimage was born and has continued since, now in its forty-sixth year, as a celebration of the history, architecture, culture, and uncommonly beautiful surroundings of West Feliciana Parish.
Each year, four private historic homes and the eternally breathtaking Afton Villa Gardens are opened to the public, along with Oakley and Rosedown state historic sites. This year’s event includes an added dimension, which the chairperson of the 2017 Pilgrimage, Lisa Horn, hopes will bring John James Audubon’s memory back to life. An exhibit presenting all seventy-three bird prints the artist completed while in the Felicianas will be on display. With this ambitious undertaking organizers hope to remind locals and visitors of the artistic legacy established by one of America’s foremost naturalists, whose name is synonymous with birds and conservation all over the world, and to remind them that Audubon drew much of his inspiration from the surrounding environs. The exhibit is already drawing praise from locals and financial support from groups like Arts For All, the local arts council. Many see this renewed focus on Audubon and his connection to the surrounding environment as a way to expand the dialogue around Pilgrimage to address more than just antebellum architecture and the plantation society that produced it.
Ecotourism for the Future
St. Francisville has long been a destination for history lovers and those seeking a taste of small-town charm. Beyond the historic district, though, at the end of a main street that terminates at the Mississippi River bank, a true outdoor paradise awaits those interested in exploring a wilderness that survives today much as it was when Audubon arrived almost two hundred years ago. The absence of a levee at the Mississippi River has preserved centuries-old backwater habitats, most centered around the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, which serve as a haven for migrating white pelicans, egrets, herons, and spoonbills that flock to the floodplain each year. During Pilgrimage weekend, renowned photographer C.C. Lockwood (featured on this month’s cover), local artist Murrell Butler, and LSU Vet School avian specialist Tom Tully, will lead a series of birding outings and workshops, coinciding with the exhibit of Audubon’s work, and illustrating the ongoing impact of his legacy on the area’s artists and conservationists.
“The natural habitat is really the foundation of this diverse ecosystem,” said Andy Green of Bayou Sara Kayak Company, a local outfitter catering to adventurous paddlers, birders, and fishermen.
“The natural habitat is really the foundation of this diverse ecosystem,” said Andy Green, owner of Bayou Sara Kayak Company, a local outfitter that caters to adventurous paddlers, birders, and fishers. “The potential for ecotourism in this area is huge.” Green has been amazed to learn some of the secrets of this delta cutaway. When he accompanied an LSU butterfly specialist on a paddle through Cat Island, the professor pointed out over 140 different species of butterflies on their two-hour journey alone.
Also on the drawing board is a large state-funded project that will afford visitors far greater access to the backwoods of the parish: Tunica Hills State Preservation Area. Plans for this interpretive center describe a series of treehouse-like buildings elevated into the forest canopy, connected by 120-foot-long footbridges that crisscross a forested ravine, providing a vantage point for hikers and nature enthusiasts. Funds for the planned $10 million project are tied up in the legislature, but plans are ready to be released for bid to contractors. “People who have been to the site believe it’s the most beautiful land in the whole state. Seeing it complete will be a thrill for everybody,” said Mark Drennan, commissioner of administration under former governor Mike Foster to inRegister magazine three years ago.
Audubon knew the moment he arrived at Bayou Sara that he’d discovered something special. Here the multi-tasking twenty-first century tourist—who likes her history mixed with adventure, served with a side of nature, and chased with an appreciation of the arts—can walk in Audubon’s largely undisturbed footsteps. The convergence of these elements is here, waiting to be explored by future generations of artists, naturalists, and conservationists.
Bayou Sara Kayak Rental, 5689 Commerce Street, St. Francisville, La., (225) 202-8822